Freddy Bitsui did not envision a career in food when he was younger, although in the past it has always been a central theme of his work, he says independent. In fact, he didn’t even think about it until an impromptu conversation with an anthropology professor at the University of Albuquerque.
He was studying ancient diets in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of parrot feathers and cocoa beans in the area, indicating that ancient Puebloans, the largest group of people living there 900 years ago, had enormous roads and trading systems between Central America and what is now Phoenix. “It’s been really cool that we tend to think of indigenous culture as people who generally reside in one area and pick berries and eat them, rather than having a systematic way of wanting to get those things they don’t have access to,” he explains.
Many years later, he is due to appear at the Santa Fe Literary Festival next month, not far from Chaco Canyon, to share his culinary vision of Native American cooking and the rich Indigenous heritage of American cuisine. Bitsui will appear at the festival alongside other notable speakers such as authors George R.R. Martin, John Grisham, Margaret Atwood, Asma Khan and John Krakauer.
For his professor, the transition to food seemed straightforward. “Every paper you write deals with food, whether it’s storage, transportation, or preparation. If we combine all of your papers together, you’ll pretty much have a thesis for a book,” he said to Bitsui, who thought about it, “Yeah… I like that idea!”
So he jumped ship…to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. He landed a job at the Marriott (“best $8 an hour I’ve ever made”) and fell in love with working in kitchens so much that he didn’t return to complete his studies in anthropology. That doesn’t mean he didn’t stay in the back of his mind. “All that time I went to college seemed like a waste if I didn’t try to take advantage of it.” He saw a poster at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the largest Native American museum in Arizona, declaring (what they called) “Native American cuisine.” “The anthropologist kind of clicked inside of me,” he says. “I broke the connotations of the term ‘Native American cuisine.’ It didn’t make sense to me because there are over 570 tribes in the United States alone, and there are more in Canada. There are many tribes in Alaska. They only speak of the lower 48.”
It made him think of his grandmother, who grew up on the border between southern Utah and northern Arizona. The Navajo food you cook and eat would be completely unfamiliar to the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, for example, and you wouldn’t recognize the tribal food from northeastern Florida, for example. “So, I thought: Well, there’s no way we can group everyone into that term ‘Native American cuisine,’ because it would just misrepresent how we feel as individuals in our own individual cultures,” says Bitsui.
He says the environment plays an equally important role in shaping the original kitchen. Salmon is perhaps the best example because you can get salmon from the tip of the islands of Alaska and southern Alaska, all the way to northern California. They’re pretty much the same kind, but the food they eat in each region is different, the water temperature is different, and so the flavor is different.” Bitsui saw it was prepared one way on North Vancouver Island by the Kwakiutl tribe — buttered, in a slice of wood Woven rice and put in butter – another way to the south, they cut salmon into fillets and cook them individually over the fire.
This difference in flavor can be tasted in plants that grow across different regions of the country. “I’ve always liked to use the French word terroir,” he says, “which is more common to refer to wine and how different minerals in the ground affect the grapes, and thus the flavour.” “The berries taste very different in Washington state compared to northern Oregon. It is these flavors that generate the differences in the way the tribes eat.”
Another great example is… sheep. Although there is some evidence of a wild species of sheep that originated in parts of North America, domesticated farm sheep did not appear in the Americas until the Spanish brought them in. This introduction influenced the way different tribes handled meat. Hopi tribe [from northeastern Arizona] Sheep use occasionally, but to the Navajo tribe it’s like their primary protein, hence some other pueblos of western New Mexico.” Most tribes make use of the whole animal, not only in eating meat but using wool for weaving.
The professional chef was trying to think of a way to explain this to the mainstream western audience when he turned on the TV after a day’s work and came across Italy Lydia, a series in which acclaimed Emmy Award-winning chef and author Lydia Bastianic travels across the country to learn and cook the dishes of each region. ‘She was highlighting the area and then the base [that episode’s] The list is out of that particular area,” Bitsui explains. He was engaged…and inspired.” “I thought I could do the same, but make it mine. That’s how I started talking about the original kitchen.”
He has since spent a decade traveling across North America, cooking alongside other indigenous chefs, participating in their rituals and learning all about their sacred techniques and dishes. This led him to become an executive chef at the Metsetam Native Foods Café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. in 2016, a position he held until its closure due to the pandemic in 2020. He has created a list of everything he has learned on his travels, displaying Native foods from all over the Western Hemisphere. “There was this wonderful dish with zucchini, summer zucchini, corn, and a little onion to add a little flavor,” he recalls. “You let her cook until everything is completely wilted. One day, there was a Native American lady from Mexico in the coffee shop, and she said, ‘You’re cooking this wrong.’” You cook it like you cook it at home. I go: “What are you talking about?” She says, “The gringos don’t like this.” If you have veggies shaped like al dente, this is the French style. So those two small differences are huge cultural differences when it comes to food preparation.”
his new book, original new kitchen, is also born from this journey, and it reads like the roadmap itself, but it’s called “new” for a reason, says Bitsui. “It’s not called traditional original cooking. It’s not called grandma’s cooking. It’s my experience traveling around the country and Canada, and my knowledge of living in the Southwest,” he explains. The book is not only “how I enjoy these foods as a professional, Native American, and Navajo chef,” though it’s “how we think food culture should evolve.”
“Right now, there’s a good segment of native chefs across the country who are focused on the past, and that’s a good thing, because we need that knowledge,” he says. “We need trainers and chefs to present these foods the way they were presented [back then]. And then we also have the modern day chefs, who will blend everything together. So we get foods from the southwest and we get food from the southeast and then they are combined together, just like we do with any kind of cuisine globally.” Bitsui has been playing around with recipes like this for the past decade, drawing both from his culinary education with technology Predominantly French and familiar with Native American food.
However, there are some things it won’t change. “There is hardly any frying in the book because frying was introduced when the conquistadors came to central Mexico,” Bitsui explains. “So these kinds of techniques are culturally different and the flavors are different, even though everyone loves fried food today.” Likewise, fat has always been used as an ingredient but not in the same way it is used today. So, for example, they used animal fat inside the corn masa to make tamales, but it was never put on the grill. Until the arrival of Spain, cooking with dairy was the same thing. So that’s not in the book. Instead of butter, Bitsui uses coconut milk unless absolutely necessary.You won’t find any flour in the book either.
While Bitsui certainly added his own style to recipes inspired by dishes he discovered on his travels, he believes that “there is no such thing as an original recipe.” One of the book’s favorite dishes, chicken and tomatoes, was inspired by a dish his grandmother used to prepare at family gatherings. “They used to brown the chicken and then take it out, put onions and some peppers, put the chicken back in with the broth and let it simmer before they threw the tomatoes in it,” he recalls. “They would put it on the table and everyone would eat it with tortillas. I always thought that was the best thing ever.” But, when I became a chef, “I was looking at the recipe and thought: This is just a play on chicken pies!”
Even now, he sees things through the lens of an anthropologist. “Some of my favorite terms are ‘infusion’ and ‘diffusion’, because these two terms have to be there for any culture to grow or develop. Infusion means things we add to our culture,” like sheep from Iberia. Bitsui hopes that the book’s novelty will bring local cuisine to a wider audience that may not have thought or understood it before.
“When I started as a new chef, I helped out with this Native American event. This chef made what she called her “three mashes”: blue corn, steamed corn, and sumac, which are all ground into porridge,” Bitsui tells me. “I was walking around the tables and all I heard were non-indigenous people saying, ‘Native food is boring and bland and grainy.’ That always stuck in the back of my head.” Well, with recipes like chocolate bison peppers, sweet pork chops, prickly pear, salmon with onion and bacon sauce and a passionate sound like Bitsui on its head, Original new kitchen Sure to show the world that authentic food is not boring at all.
The inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival will take place from May 20-23, 2022. The four-day event is set to explore issues at a time of extraordinary change – in politics, race, immigration, the environment and more. The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, will provide coverage throughout each day of the festival as well as the run-up to it through exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more information about the festival, visit Santa Fe Literary Festival Section or visit The festival website is here. Learn more about buying tickets click here.